Dervish Whirling

Dervish Whirling

The Dance of the Known Universe

by Ellen Sander

A musician and lover of dance woke up one morning to find his world a black hole. Everything seemed hopeless and he realized he’d been deeply depressed for some length of time. Dejected and moving aimlessly about the room, picking up objects and putting them down, he found a book of poetry in his hands. He opened it to a random page and read the following verse by the Persian poet Jelal al-Din Rumi. It brought into his life new flame, one which was to heal his depression, illuminate his spiritual life and forever affect his music.

Today, like every other day we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.


Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.1

Let the beauty we love be what we do.” The thought possessed him. It was as if a smoky room began to clear. The poem, one of thousands of incandescent odes and lyrics written by Rumi, resonated in his being and he walked through a door that would lead him to learning to play the ney, traveling to Turkey with whirling dervishes, playing in an orchestra celebrating the anniversary of Rumi’s death and scoring a full length dance program based on the poetry of Rumi.

“Whirling dervish” of the Mavlevi order of Sufis.

Centuries ago, in 1244, in Konya, Seljuk Turkey, Islamic theologian and teacher, Jelal al-Din Rumi, still empty and seeking at 37, encountered a wandering dervish, the Moslem equivalent of a monk or friar, by the name of Shams al-Din, who became his spiritual connection to the divine. The Persian word, “darvesh,” the ultimate source of “dervish,” means “religious mendicant.” Dervishes were said to occupy the threshold between the mundane and the mystical world.

When Rumi’s jealous students either banished or murdered Shams, (accounts differ) in 1247, Rumi’s burning devotion to his teacher’s inspiration transformed his life into an ongoing ritual of ecstatic expression, which soon attracted many followers. He began reciting poetry extemporaneously. One description has him “wholly incapable of controlling the torrent of poetry which now poured forth from him.”2 Then, Rumi found a dance to personify the burning love of the divine, coming alive within him.

Walking through the streets of a marketplace in Konya, Rumi passed some gold beaters pounding out gold for artifacts and jewelry. Engaged by the rhythm of the hammering, he began to turn and spin and, the story continues, he spun for 36 hours, declaring afterward “I am not the same person.” He began then the practice now identified as whirling dervish dancing, or more commonly, the dervish turn, performed to the accompaniment of the lamenting reed pipe (ney) and pacing drum. It is a unique form of moving meditation that probably had its origins in Central Asian shamanism.

After Rumi’s death in 1273, his son and grandson began a Sufi order called the Mavlevi (meaning followers of the beloved Master), which practiced the dervish turning dance. In the turn, devotees are uniting the heavens and earth, through the threshold between worlds. Over the course of time, the turn became formalized, with a lot of symbolism in the costume and form of the dance. The dance today is performed by men and women in a long white dress with a wide skirt, white leggings, a cummerbund and a tall, tapered flat-topped camel’s hair hat. The presentation is called sema. Sema means “listen”, which is the first word in the Mathnawi, Rumi’s major work, an epic poem of mystical experience.

The dancer turns with both arms up, right palm turned to the heavens and left palm turned to the earth, the dancer connecting heaven and earth. The turning symbolizes the essential rotational motion of the known universe, from atoms to planets, for the purpose of shedding the relationship with the everyday world and approaching union with the unknown world. One who is instructed in the sema, is called a semazen. The music used in sema is complex Turkish music, highly evolved in form.

Classic sema consists of several progressive forms. The semazens begin with dark cloaks over their white costumes. A eulogy to praise the prophet is incanted, followed by drumming. The drumming is followed by a taksim, an improvisation on the ney, to honor the breath of life. Then, the semazens begin a circular procession three times around the turning space, during which they greet and bow to one another. The dark cloaks are removed and the semazens begin to whirl placidly with eyelids lowered, arms and hands first crossed on the chest, then with arms raised, left palm facing downward, right palm facing heavenward. Music, drumming and singing, which accelerate in rhythm and intensity as sema progresses, accompany the whirling. The ceremony closes with prayer and meditation, the semazens put on the dark cloaks and perform a recession, bowing to the turning space and all within it.

In recent history the dervish dance became illegal in Turkey, but in 1978, a Mavlevi, Jelaladdin Loras came to the U.S. from Turkey to teach the turn to North American dancers. Since then, the spiritual and physical fascinations of dervish dancing have gained a small but growing circle of devotees and teachers here in the U.S. The poetry of Rumi has a significant academic and popular following among searchers and seekers finding transcendence in this elegant and profound verse exploring the yearning for union with the divine. Poets and lovers of poetry, regardless of faith, are struck with the great spiritual truths expressed in such few and finely crafted words of Rumi’s quatrains and the voluptuous breadth of his longer works. Both the dance and the poetry bequeathed by Rumi originate from and express the process of a sacred journey.


The five spiritual senses are connected.

They’ve grown from one root.

As one grows strong, the others strengthen, too:

each one becomes a cupbearer to the rest.

Seeing with the eye increases speech;

speech increases discernment in the eye.

As sight deepens, it awakens every sense,

so that perception of the spiritual

becomes familiar to them all.

When one sense grows into freedom,

all the other senses change as well.

When one sense perceives the hidden,

the invisible world becomes apparent to the whole.3

Steve Flynn plays for zikr in carpet shop, Konya, Turkey

The musician in the vignette that opens this article is Seattle’s Steven Flynn, well known in the bellydance community as a composer, musician, videographer and the husband of world-class bellydancer, Delilah, whose original bellydance music he composed, produced and recorded. His study of Rumi and consequent proficiency playing the ney has inspired his latest album, Rapture Rumi,4 the score for a Robert Davidson Dance Company production of the same name, premiering in Seattle in June, 1995. The design and choreography of Rapture Rumi was based on Rumi’s life and poetic work. One dance represents Rumi’s relationship with Shams al-Din, the dervish that enraptured Rumi, in a zikr, a circle dance described as “a form of aerobic prayer.” Others are titled “Circling, Light and Longing,” common themes in Rumi’s poetry. The production was highly experimental and spectacular in form, featuring dancers on low trapezes gliding close to the floor like angels.

The music for Rapture Rumi is a series of lush and evocative instrumentals exploring themes from Rumi (but only the introductory cut has spoken word, the rest is all music) in 4/4, 6/8, 7/4, 10/8 and 9/8 Turkish and Persian rhythms. Sublime both to dance and listen to, Rapture Rumi, is not the traditional body of music that comprises the sema orchestra (with which Flynn is also associated). Instead, it is a stunning musical extrapolation of the spiritual and emotional ecstasy of Rumi’s insights and compassion. The album features Karl Sackstder on digeridoo, Armando (“Uncle”) Mafufo on dumbek, tar and percussion and Stephen Flynn’s well known keyboard synthesizer in addition to his more recent forte on the ney. Throughout the compositions, the haunting and lofty voice of the ney, the reed flute, sings profoundly in fluid lyric melodies.

The ney was Flynn’s musical venture into the heart of Rumi’s poetry. He was intrigued with the first lines of Rumi’s “Mathnawi,” which are:

Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,

how it sings of separation:

ever since they cut me from the reed bed,

my wail has caused men and women to weep.

I want a breast torn and tattered with longing,

so that I may relate the pain of love.

Whoever has been parted from his source

wants back the time of being united.

Before he learned to play the ney, Flynn had composed ney parts on his synthesizer and subsequently, at one of Delilah’s Hawaiian bellydance retreats, Suliman (of Sirocco) was listening to one of these recordings and commented that a real ney should have been used. Flynn replied that he would have loved to have used a real ney but he didn’t have one and didn’t know how to play it. Suliman told him to get a piece of ½” thinwall PVC pipe (a plumbing supply). Flynn did so, and Suliman showed him how to craft a ney and taught him how to get a basic sound out of it. A ney, learned Flynn, takes an incredible amount of perseverance to master. “It’s not unusual for it to take six months to get any kind of a sound out of it at all. It’s a flute, not a reed like a sax or clarinet.” Originally, the ney was a hollow piece of cane with nine holes in it (corresponding to the nine orifices of the human body) symbolizing a human being as an empty reed and the breath of the divine blowing through it, creating music.

Robert Davidson (l) as Shams in “Rapture: Rumi”

“I played for a year to get a sound I was happy with and then another year before I wanted to be playing in front of human beings,” said Flynn. By that time he’d met some people involved with a dervish turn class (under Jelaladdin Loras’ auspices ) who were preparing to perform sema. The teacher asked Flynn to play for the class. Then, Jelaladdin Loras came to Seattle where he and Flynn were introduced. Flynn later got involved with the Mavlevi Order of America and played in their orchestra in 1994 and 1995 when they caravanned up the West Coast to present zikr and sema during the celebration in December that marks the anniversary of Rumi’s death, which is called “the wedding night.”

While Flynn was teaching himself to play the ney, a Turkish ensemble came to Seattle and he buttonholed the ney player to teach him how to play. The musician said, “You have to come to Turkey.” Says Flynn, “I had about as much intention of going to the moon as I did to go to Turkey. But then, a short year later all of a sudden, I had an opportunity to go with a group of dervishes and Jelaladdin. I wanted to go as sort of a pilgrimage to Rumi’s tomb. I didn’t really consider myself a Mavlevi or a Sufi and most of the people were semazens and Mavlevis. But I decided to go anyway just to feel the presence of Rumi.” Flynn videotaped the sema as the dancers turned at Rumi’s tomb in Konya by special permission of the Turkish government.

The one who is ruled by Mind,

without sleeping, puts her senses to sleep,

so that unseen things may emerge from the world of the Soul.

Even in her waking state, she dreams dreams,

and opens thereby the gates of Heaven.

Spinning is one of the most exciting movements in the bellydance (as it is in every dance) and the practice of spinning has evoked profound responses from some dancers regardless of whether they have had exposure to sema or not. For Delilah, an understanding of sema helped put this experience into a known context. Delilah found her own way into dervish dancing and other Sufi traditional dance organically:

“I spin a lot when I dance. I can spin forever. I was very enthusiastically drawn to whirling because it was movement prayer” she explains. “For me, dance is a spiritual practice so here was something very ancient and poetic. Synchronistically, a “turning circle” was developing in Seattle at the same time as I started experiencing curiosity about it. I watched their progress for a year from a distance and then when the group did sema, I was really sad that I hadn’t stuck with it. I really wanted to turn with them. Then, I met the teacher, Jelaladdin who brought me into the circle. I started researching , reading, and turning with the Mavlevi Order of America.

“Once, about 10 years ago when I was early and waiting for my bellydance class to come in, I started spinning to kill some time. I was in a perfect turn. I could see the clock, I could see people coming into the room, I was aware of what they were saying, as if I was outside my body, watching. I saw the clock and realized I’d been turning for over 20 minutes. And I was breathing and saying “Hu. Hu. Hu.” I thought ‘what’s going to happen when I stop?’

“I stopped and I felt OK, I was fine. I had gone beyond any kind of comprehension of dizziness. I was really, really balanced and standing on what the dervishes call the “threshold.” I didn’t know anything about the dervish tradition of spinning at the time. That was my first experience. I always remembered that event and then when I got involved with the dervish turn, I realized that this was spontaneously coming through [me]. I found out that the husband of one of my students was a trained whirling dervish, so about seven years ago I asked him if he would come demonstrate and tell my class about the ritual and techniques of the whirling dervish.”

Don’t come to us without bringing music.

We celebrate with drum and flute,

with wine not made from grapes,

in a place you cannot imagine.

The dervish turn as a Sufi practice originates with Rumi and resonates with his poetry and mystical fire. It is a practice that is performed both within and outside of the formal order of Mavlevi or Sufism. A series of circle dances encompassing a number of traditions under the rubric of Sufi dancing is offered by Dances for Universal Peace through the auspices of the first American Sufi master, Samuel Lewis. Delilah reports that one of her idols, Ruth St. Denis, taught Murshid Sam to “channel” Dances for Universal Peace. The Dances for Universal Peace are held all over the world, creating cultural bridges and, to borrow a phrase from Gabrielle Roth, whose own recordings borrow a great deal from zikr and zar, maps to ecstasy.


1 The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne. Harper, San Francisco, c1995 by Coleman Barks.

2 Mystical Poems of Rumi 1, Arberry, University of Chicago Press, 1968

3 Rumi, Mathnawi II, 3236-3241.

4 Visionary Dance Productions, P.O. Box 30797, Seattle, WA 98103. 206/632-2353. email:

5The Ruins of the Heart: Selected Lyric Poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Edmund Helminski, Threshold Books, c 1981 Edmund Helminski.

6Mathnawi III 1833-4.

7Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne. Maypop Books.


The following are some of the books on Rumi distributed by Threshold books, 139 Main Street, Brattle-boro, Vermont 05301; (802) 257-2779 Voice and fax. E-mail:

The Essential Rumi (highly recommended, most popular translation)

Open Secret, audiocassette, 60 minutes

Say, I am You



One Handed Basket Weaving

Writings on Work

Delicious Laughter

Rambunctious Teaching Stories from the Mathnawi

Like This

43 Odes of Rumi

Works on Islam and Sufism distributed by Threshold Books:

The Whirling Dervishes, by Shams Friedlander

Living Presence, by Kabir Helminski

The Masters of Wisdom, by J.G. Bennett

Living and Dying with Grace, by Ali ibn Abu Talib

The Book of Sufi Chivalry, by Ibn Husayn al-Sulami

Islam and the Destiny of Man, by Gai Eaton

Muhammad, by Karen Armstrong

Mystical Dimensions of Islam, by Annemarie Schimmel

For you online savants, Threshold’s beautiful web page contains a wealth of poetic and scriptural material on Rumi, sema and Sufism, some of which was used as research for or quoted in this article. The URL is

The author wishes to thank Delilah and Steven Flynn of Visionary Dance Productions for their time and inspiration in assembling this article and her own other teachers seen and unseen. As a disclaimer, let me say that this article is intended to be an introduction to the dancing practices originating in Sufism with particular emphasis on dervish turning and does not profess to be a comprehensive or widely ranging explanation of the history or teachings or affiliation of personalities propagating Sufism or Sufi dancing in the U.S. Several well known dancers, teachers and institutions were not mentioned herein in the interests of avoiding digression. I nonetheless deeply honor them all. E.S.


Ellen Sander, the poet, is Shoshanim, the bellydancer. A resident of Venice, California, she has published poetry in several journals, including Saturday Afternoon Journal, Words Are Birds and Alladdin’s Magic Lamp. She was recently the featured poet on “Put Your Ears On,” a regular cable television program which concentrates on L.A. poets and authors. She is also a journalist and the author of several published books, including Trips, Rock Life in the 60s. Her writing has been anthologized in Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady, The Best of the Realist and the Conscious Reader, among others, and she has published in Vogue, Saturday Review, The L.A. Weekly, Jazz and Pop, and Rolling Stone, and many others. (

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